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When Nigeria’s slow wheel of justice caught up with Uzor Kalu

By Olawunmi Ojo
06 December 2019   |   4:20 am
After a 12-year trial period, Orji Uzor Kalu, a former governor of Abia State and Chief Whip of the Senate, was yesterday brought to book for offences committed against his people.

Orji Uzor Kalu. PHOTOS:Twitter<br />

After a 12-year trial period, Orji Uzor Kalu, a former governor of Abia State and Chief Whip of the Senate, was yesterday brought to book for offences committed against his people. In the wake of Nigeria’s return to democratic governance in 1999, Kalu was one of the governors elected to steer the affairs of the states of the federation and help fulfill the yearnings of the masses for purposeful governance and true development. But amid actions that simulated development and got praise singers christening him ‘the messiah,’ he plundered the state’s till, grossly under-developed his people and set the tone for their sustained impoverishment.

Shortly after stepping down as governor in 2007, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) took him to court on a 39-count charge bordering on diversion of about N7.65 billion from the state’s purse. And yesterday, after a drawn trial, he was handed a 12-year jail sentence at a Federal High Court in Lagos by presiding judge, Mohammed Idris, for money laundering.

In addition to the sentence, Justice Idris ordered that Kalu’s company, Slok Nigeria Limited, be liquidated and its assets forfeited to the Federal Government. The senator, Slok Nigeria Limited and Udeh Udeogu, a former director of finance and accounts in Abia, were found complicit in the diversion.

The established offences were said to be in contravention of section 17(c) of the money laundering (prohibition) Act, 2004, as the EFCC had argued that the defendants breached section 427 of the Criminal Code Act, CAP 77, laws of the federation 1990.

The ignoble list
Kalu joins an ignoble list of former governors, especially from the class of those who mounted the saddle in 1999, who have been convicted of corruption and/or diversion of funds meant for the development of their respective states. Last year, Justice Adebukola Banjoko sentenced former Taraba State governor, Jolly Nyame, to 14 years’ imprisonment for fraud. A few weeks later, former Plateau State governor, Joshua Dariye, was found guilty of diverting about N1.2 billion ecological funds at an Abuja High Court and sentenced him to 14 years in prison.

Others who have suffered similar fate include former governor of Adamawa State, James Bala Ngilari, former governor of Edo State, Lucky Igbinedion, former governor of Delta State, Jame Ibori and former governor of Bayelsa State, Diepreye Alamieyesegha.

Ngilari was sentenced to jail for five years without an option of fine for defrauding his state of N167 million. Igbinedion got sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for money laundering worth N25 billion, but got a plea bargain that made him pay N3.5 million fine. Ibori, who has since completed his time in jail, was sentenced to 13 years in prison for money laundering by a London court for laundering $250 million. The late Alamieyesegha was sentenced to jail for two years based on a plea bargain after he was found guilty of laundering N3.7 billion.

Judgment and shape of things to come
The EFCC, in an amended 39-count charge, had accused Kalu and his co-defendants of conspiring and diverting over N7 billion from the state coffers. In one of the counts, EFCC alleged that Kalu “did procure Slok Nigeria Limited to retain in its account, domiciled with the then Inland Bank Plc, Apapa branch, Lagos, an aggregate sum of N7,197,871,208.7…”

The prosecution claimed that the N7.1 billion “formed part of the funds illegally derived from the treasury of Abia State Government and which were converted into several bank drafts before they were paid into the said company’s account.”The prosecuting counsel, Rotimi Jacobs, said the ex-governor violated Section 17(c) of Money Laundering (Prohibition) Act, 2004, and was liable to be punished under Section 16 of the same Act. Apart from the N7.1 billion, which he was accused of laundering, the ex-governor and the other defendants were also accused of receiving a total of N460 million allegedly stolen from Abia State Government treasury between July and December 2002, breaching Section 427 of the Criminal Code Act, Cap 77, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 1990, in the process.

Though the defendants pleaded not guilty to all counts, they were all convicted. While Kalu would serve 12 years, the judge sentenced Udeogu to 10 years’ imprisonment and ordered the winding up of Slok Nigeria Limited and a forfeiture of its assets to government. Of the 39 counts filed against the trio, the judge convicted Kalu of the entire 28 counts in which his name featured and found Udeogu guilty of 11 out of the 16 counts in which his name featured.

In pronouncing the convicts guilty, Justice Idris said the EFCC proved its case beyond reasonable doubt, saying, “I, sincerely, cannot find my way clear in finding these defendants not guilty of the offences charged.”While jubilations have been reported in various parts of Abia State, commentators, in reviewing the judgment, have described it as ‘thorough’ and ‘a good attempt at serving justice.’

“The facts of the case have been properly reviewed and evidence thoroughly analysed; there is no basis for querying the judgment,” the Executive Director of the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), Mr. Adetokunbo Mumuni, said.
Mumuni opined that the judiciary was playing its part in the anti-graft war “by trying to live up to expectations.”For the National President of the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR), Malachy Ugwummadu, the judgment had established a precedent and shown that no individual was above the law.

“The law remains the law,” he said. “The fact that Orji Uzor Kalu defected to the All Progressives Congress (APC) from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) did not provide a cover for him.”Ugwummadu highlighted the role Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) played in the trial, saying that the provisions of ACJA, which prevented the trial from starting from the beginning when the trial judge got elevated to the Court of Appeal, were spot on.He said: “The speed with which this case was adjudicated has everything to do with the ACJA that now allows that a trial judge, though elevated, can return to conclude an ongoing criminal proceeding. The ACJA is explicit; it is proactive; it is definitive; it allows a judge, who started a trial and got elevated to a superior court, to return to conclude proceedings.

“This is exactly what happened here. Kalu was arraigned before Justice Mohammed Idris, who, within the period of the trial, was elevated to the Court of Appeal. Today, he delivered that judgment. To that extent, it is remarkable because it touches on the speedy dispensation of justice. What obtained before now was the matter starting de novo with the transfer or elevation of the judge.”

Kalu is expected to appeal the judgment. This much Mumuni and Ugwummadu admitted. But would he get reprieve? A renowned legal practitioner from the southeastern part of the country, who chose to be anonymous, said Kalu would get substantial reprieve. For him, so long as Kalu remained a friend of the current government and a force in APC, he would get the sentence reduced substantially and would largely stay out of prison on concocted medical entreaties.

Following Kalu’s cross-carpet to APC, critics of the Buhari-led administration had suggested that his trial would be stalled and eventually thrown out. Those fears were further amplified with the active role he began to play, almost immediately, in the party, especially in strengthening the party’s base in the Southeast ahead of the last general elections. Curiously also, in the run-up to the judgment, allegations made the round that the leadership of APC made spirited efforts to influence
Justice Idris to give favourable decision.

Long list of ‘untouchables’ awaiting trial
In the aftermath of Kalu’s judgment and coming on the heels of a Federal High Court judgment in Lagos earlier in the week, which ordered the Federal Government to recover pensions collected by former governors now serving as ministers and members of the National Assembly, and directed the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami, to challenge the legality of states’ pension laws permitting former governors and other ex-public officials to collect such pensions, some analysts have called on the government to turn the heat on other former governors and serving senators still being tried for offences bordering on corruption and money laundering in different high courts across the country.

Some of the high profile corruption cases, dating back to 2007 have gone on appeal up to the Supreme Court on matters of interlocutory submissions, while some have been referred to the trial court for commencement of proper trial.Former Jigawa State governor, Saminu Turaki, is being tried for an alleged N36 billion fraud, but the trial is yet to begin substantively. Turaki, who served two terms as governor of Jigawa from 1999 to 2007, was first arraigned by the EFCC before Justice Binta Murtala Nyako of the Federal Capital Territory High Court on July 13, 2007 on a 32-count charge of misappropriating N36 billion while in office. Following his arraignment, he was granted bail in the sum of N100 million with two federal legislators, Bawa Bwari and Bashir Adamu, standing as his sureties. In 2011, the case was transferred to the Federal High Court, Dutse, after the accused successfully challenged the jurisdiction of the FCT division of the court.

Turaki’s immediate successor, Sule Lamido, is also facing trial for corruption at the Federal High Court. Lamido, who on July 14, 2015, was arraigned on a 44-count charge before Justice A.F.A Ademola of the Federal High Court, Abuja, in suit FHC/ABJ/CR/329/2015, has, however, been appearing in court in Abuja. Chimaroke Nnamani, who was governor of Enugu State, has had his case stalled since 2007 following allegations that he was ill. The Federal High Court in Lagos, at a time, issued a bench warrant for his arrest.

There are some who have even gone on to win elections into other arms of government, with some currently serving in the Senate. Abdullahi Adamu of APC won Nasarawa West Senatorial District election in the election held on February 23 this year. The former governor of Nasarawa State was arrested in 2010 by the EFCC for allegedly misappropriating N15 billion alongside 18 others. He was subsequently arraigned on a 149-count charge of fraud alongside his co-accused. The case is yet to be concluded.

Adamu is not alone. Stella Oduah of PDP is a former aviation minister and a returning senator. She is on the list of people being questioned by the EFCC for alleged money laundering. In February 2018, she was questioned by the EFCC and had her passport seized. Mrs. Oduah is being investigated for allegedly awarding dubious contracts worth N9.4 billion during her stint as aviation minister in the Goodluck Jonathan administration. She was accused of diverting N3.9 billion from the N9.4 billion meant for the installation of security devices at 22 airports. Though she denied the allegations, she is yet to be prosecuted.

Aliyu Wamakko represents Sokoto North Senatorial District in the current senate. Wamakko, who was governor between 2007 and 2015, is under investigation over allegations of theft of public funds and money laundering totaling N15 billion. He denied the allegation but the EFCC, in April 2018, confirmed that the commission was investigating allegations contained in a petition against him.

There are also cases against a former governor of Oyo State, Rasheed Ladoja, filed in 2008 at the Supreme Court on interlocutory appeal. Others are Danjuma Goje (Gombe) filed in 2011, current Minister of State for Petroluem, Mr. Timipreye Sylva (Bayelsa) in 2015, Murtala Nyako (Adamawa) in 2015, Adebayo Alao-Akala (Oyo) in 2011, Gbenga Daniel (Ogun) in 2011, Aliyu Doma (Nasarawa) in 2011, Attahiru Bafawara (Sokoto) in 2009, and Ikedi Ohakim (Imo) filed in 2015.

As the country’s slow wheel of justice rolls on, would it catch up with a substantial lot of this select few who have made a monster of governance since 1999 that life for ordinary Nigerians has remained brutish and plunged the country into the poverty capital of the world status?